Newsweek magazine, this year in conjunction with its sister publication The Daily Beast, has just published its annual list of America’s 50 “most influential” rabbis. It’s Newsweek’s fifth such list but the first time that a woman — writer Abigail Pogrebin — has been directly involved in the selection, which no doubt explains why the number of women on the list has more than doubled. This year, 13 women made the list; that’s up from 6 last year.
The Newsweek list has come under fire in years past for including a paucity of women and for ranking rabbis at all (though, to be sure, rabbis who make the list often include their ranking in their official bios, and I’ve heard a few of them mention the distinction when being interviewed about something totally unrelated).
Interestingly, six of the seven women who were new to the list were on The Sisterhood 50 last year — a list compiled by Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner in response to the shortage of female rabbis mentioned. Pogrebin says that she had The Sisterhood 50 “very close by, always,” when working on Newsweek’s rabbi rankings. “Other lists are instructive and their own snapshot of a perspective,” she told The Sisterhood. “I wanted to very much consult what was already out there, and some of those lists were intended to be a corrective.”
Pogrebin — a popular interviewer of luminaries at the JCC in Manhattan and elsewhere, and author of two books, including “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish,” (as well as a daughter of feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin) — says that she was brought in because she is “kind of a rabbi groupie, if there is such a thing.”
“I’m very inspired by those who are inspiring and also very impatient with those who, I think, phone it in or aren’t constantly challenging others or themselves,” she said.
Her goal was “to make this list less about the rankings and more about who these rabbis are — to make the bios mini-narratives or stories so these characters come to life, so that people have a glimpse of what’s really happening in the Jewish world, who has ‘influence’ and for what reasons,” she said.
This year the highest-ranking woman is Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and leader of Los Angeles congregation IKAR, who comes in at #10 (compared to #31 last year). Members of her congregation are expected to sign up for participation in social justice projects and, as this year’s list notes, “Torah is consistently linked to responsibility in the world.”
Rabbi Naomi Levy is this year ranked #19 (up from #39 last year). According to the Newsweek/Daily Beast article:
She is founder of L.A.’s Nashuva (“We will return”), a spiritual community that requires neither dues nor membership, and attracts families who haven’t found meaning or connection elsewhere. A nationally traveled speaker who manages to straddle accessibility and scholarship, she was among the first women to enter JTS’ rabbinical school and was the first female Conservative rabbi to have a pulpit on the West Coast. Her recent book, “Hope Will Find You,” is about navigating life’s hurdles — in her case, her daughter’s frightening diagnosis.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, of Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, is #24, up one spot from last year. Her GLBTQ congregation, which also has straight members, has just approved purchase of a new synagogue space in Chelsea, where it will move from its long-time home in the West Village.
Rabbi Joy Levitt, director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, is lauded on the list (where she is this year #27, up from #49 last year) for her “demandingly inventive programming” which “appeals to every conceivable constituency, family constellation, and interest group,” in addition to her commitment to making room for “the diversity of cultural voices.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive director of the Conservative movement’s 1,600-member Rabbinical Assembly and newly appointed to the White House’s Faith Based Council, is new on the list this year and given spot #29.
Orthodox Rabba Sara Hurwitz, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Maharat, is #32.
Also worth noting: Rabbi Stephen Pearce of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El is #34 this year, in part because he is the international vice chair of Rabbis for Women of the Wall, which advocates for the right of women to pray in community at the Western Wall.
Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, was just named to the list for the first time, at #36.
Rabbi and Cantor Angela Buchdahl, who is new on the list and #38, draws crowds to Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, is the first Asian-American rabbi and an advocate for community organizing.
Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is also new to the list, given spot #42, and is dean of Boston’s Hebrew College.
Innovative Seattle Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum (no relation) is a member of the Kavanna Collective and was on the list in 2008. She seems to have merited a place on it this year because she was named one of eight Joshua Venture Group social entrepreneurship fellows last year.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the newly named [executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America is #45, up a few spots from last year, when she was listed as #49.
Rabbi Laura Geller is new on the list this year (though should have been on it in the past). Senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, she was the first Reform rabbi to lead a major metropolitan synagogue and was the first working female rabbi to have a child (in 1982).
Rabbi Jackie Ellenson is another rabbi who should have been on the list from the start. Executive director of the Reform movement’s Women’s Rabbinic Network, she is #49 on the list because “Ellenson is the go-to mentor for aspiring and practicing female rabbis in Reform Judaism.”
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is an award-winning journalist who covers philanthropy, religion, gender and other contemporary issues. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and New York magazine, among many other publications. She authored the book “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.”
Newsweek List Takes a Page From 'The Sisterhood 50'